Changing Hearts and Minds

Many people think that to be a great leader, you must be universally adored right from the beginning.

While first impressions are undeniably important, a skill that is not talked about often enough is one that is absolutely integral to bringing about justice, equality, and the kind of change we want to see in our societies and in the world:

The ability to change hearts and minds.

As leaders on the left, we often start out from a point of disadvantage.

Sometimes this is because those of us leading change come from equity-seeking groups, and are already marginalized by society. We are also at a disadvantage because sometimes we ask people and communities for a lot.

That means we have a lot of catch-up work to do, to get people on our side. People are resistant to change, not necessarily because they’re ignorant or bigoted, but because they’re scared.

When Tommy Douglas asked Saskatchewan to get behind him on creating a universal healthcare system, it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular.

But he did it anyways, because he knew it was the right thing to do. Sure enough, fifty years later he is considered to be the Greatest Canadian, and our healthcare system is continuously ranked as one of the things Canadians are most proud of about our country.

Douglas was successful, but not because he made a great first impression, but because he had the incredible skill of being able to change the hearts and minds of Canadians, and to lay the groundwork for those changes to be absorbed into a piece of Canadian identity.

The same could be said for justice advocates like Viola Desmond and Louis Riel. Overtime, all three have become symbols of the struggle for equity, and figures of pride for many Canadians.

Health equity, rights for people of colour, and Indigenous self-governance are all issues we are still fighting for today. When we feel discouraged that change will never come, we would do well to remember one simple fact about how we’re going to win:

We must change people’s minds.

A great example of a modern-day leader that’s doing that right now, is Andrea Horwath.

Every New Democrat in Ontario knows that the 2014 election was not something to be particularly proud of. It’s a fact that Horwath herself has always been upfront and apologetic about. After that disappointing election, she asked members to give her another chance to change Ontarian’s minds about her leadership, and the NDP.

Horwath scraped by in a leadership review that was only 6.9 percentage points away from being considered a resignation-worthy score.

Since then, however, we have seen Horwath turn people’s opinions around with incredible skill. She is currently the most popular political party leader in Ontario, and successfully withstood a leadership review with an incredible 89% support.

A leader that can do that, can change citizens’ minds about political positions too.

A leader that can do that can bring a social democratic vision to Ontario.

Fostering this ability in more of our leaders is something that we need to start focusing on, and it’s one thing that is seriously lacking in our conversations. Particularly, I have found, at party conventions.

Party conventions are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Indeed, they are loud, exhausting, and create an atmosphere of almost perpetual hacky-ness. But my biggest grievance is that there’s one thing they make us completely forget how to do:

How to have an argument.

Party conventions are the embodiment of the echo chamber. They are a place where the CON mics are so rarely used, the chair habitually forgets to check if there’s a speaker waiting in their dusty lineups. Every resolution that’s “debated” is passed with near unanimous consent, while we ignore that most of them appear in the policy book already.

This is a problem that not just the membership has to deal with, but that our political leaders need to start acting on as well.

For me, the most disappointing moment of this weekend’s party convention was during one of the policy breakout sessions. We were supposed to tackle several questions about our politics in preparation for the 2018 election, among them questions about our communications strategy and how to respond to weaknesses.

Instead of staying firm, and directing the group towards discussing those questions, the moderator of the session only stayed on the first question: What policies do you want to see in the platform?

It was an absolute failure of leadership.

This is a party of people that love to talk about policy, but never want to talk about how we’re going to communicate it, how we’re going to defend against attacks to it, and how we’re going to win.

The work that needs to be done to communicate our policies properly, and how we’re going to change hearts and minds, must be done by all of us. In our schools, neighbourhoods and families, we all need to start being leaders for the social democratic cause.

Those conversations will not always be easy, and they will not always be popular.

But to transform society into a social democratic state we can all thrive in, they are necessary.

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